As the barking sound of a dog in the distance broke the silence of the night, the two figures standing behind a heap of sand filled sacks, stretched their necks forward trying to pick up any other sound which may have escaped their notice.
With their eyes wide open, ears cocked and rifles in their hands, they gazed into the thick white blanket of fog that had engulfed the agricultural fields along the Indo-Pakistan border near Ranian village. As the barking stopped, the only sound that they succeeded in picking up was their own heavy breathing sound.
Standing under the cover of a sheet of tin fixed onto four wooden poles, these figures were those of two Border Security Force (BSF) jawans on night duty along the border. Guarding the border at night is a tough task especially when the neighbour is not a friendly one and is ever ready to take advantage of lapses, if ever they occur.
However, the task of these border guarding jawans becomes all the more tougher during winters, that is when the fog sets-in. With visibility reduced to just a couple of yards, the jawans have to be always alert as they are aware that lapses on their part can prove costly for the nation.
"In such foggy conditions, we rely a lot on our ears for picking up even the slightest sound or noise. A dog's bark coming from our side of the border or from the Pakistan side, is always taken as a warning signal by our jawans", said inspector Mahinder Singh, the tall company commander (CC) of the BSF at the Ranian border outpost (BOP).
The visibility on the night of Friday-Saturday was extremely low due to fog. The jawans sitting at their 'nakas' close to the barbed wire fence could barely see anything beyond six metres and the zero line was around 150-200 metres away from their duty point.
Showing the difficult conditions that the BSF jawans work in, the CC took the HT-team for a round of the area under his jurisdiction. Along with a senior BSF official and the CC, as the team moved in silence along the fence, the sound of someone yelling came crashing through the fog. The CC muttered a few words quite loudly, which probably were picked up by the jawans at the 'naka', as thereafter no more yells were heard.
"The jawan at the next 'naka' has picked up our sound and had issued a customary warning. As I replied back, he knows that a 'friend' is coming his way", said the CC, while pointing out that the jawans at the 'naka' had picked up the crackling sound caused after someone steps on dried paddy straw.
The CO explained that in such foggy nights, the jawans get alerted by such crackling sounds. Floodlights too are of little or no help as a few yards beyond the fence, nothing is visible. At the 'naka', a jawan was serving steaming hot tea from a thermos flask to two of his colleagues who were on duty.
Two jawans move out every 2-hours to serve tea to the jawans on night duty. This not only helps the jawans to keep warm but also gives them a feeling that they are not alone, particularly in such conditions. Moreover, this also helps in keeping a check on the teams on night duty.
'Man's best friend' lives up to name
Interestingly, a dog always accompany's the teams which serve tea. There are around three to four stray dogs at the BOP and the animals are so accustomed to seeing men in uniform that they would bark or even attack anybody in civils. These dogs can also be seen at the 'nakas' at night and in such foggy conditions, they prove to be of help as they have better hearing amd smelling sense than humans. Here, 'man's best friend' lives up to its name.
The winter clothing given to the BSF jawans here is on par with their to their counterparts stationed along the mountainous borders in Kashmir. This is because at times when the night temperature in Amritsar city is around 5 degrees Celsius, the temperature at Ranian and other areas along the border, dips below zero.
However, what jawans need the most they in such weather conditions are gadgets to detect movements across the fence. Night vision devices (NVD) can help to see in the darkness but cannot pierce through the fog. Currently some devices are being tested for foggy conditions but approval is expected to take time.
The BSF is aware that intruders or smugglers will take advantage of foggy conditions to step up their activities along the border. So, they have to be alert.
Other than warm clothing and weapons, the only protection that the BSF jawans have at their 'nakas' is a tin shed. If tin sheets are not available, the jawans use elephantine grass for roofing. The proximity of the Ravi river adds to the woes of the jawans at Ranian as fog thickens around water bodies. It is at Ranian that the Ravi finally enters Pakistan.
Explaining the nature of their duty, the company commander said that the border cannot be left unguarded even for a minute. The challenge is to not let smugglers of drugs, arms and ammunition succeed in their evil designs.
The jawans on night duty are replaced by their colleagues at 6am. However, the task for jawans who come as replacements in the morning is no easier. The foggy conditions normally persist throughout the day, though visibility does improve as the day progresses.
The jawans on morning duty heave a sigh of relief when the Zero Line is visible to them. They consider themselves lucky if they get a dim sight of the BOP of the Pakistan Rangers on the other side.
Without waiting for visibility to improve, the first jawans on morning duty move beyond the fence looking for fresh foot marks. They conduct a search of the fields as narcotic smugglers can take advantage of foggy conditions to conceal their contraband in the fields and their Indian contacts retrieve the same at night.
In the morning, jawans move up the observation posts to scan the border with their binoculars. Thereafter when all is clear, the BSF jawans allow the farmers to move through the fencing gates to their fields.
The second half of December and virtually the whole of January are perhaps the most testing times for the border guards, when they come face to face with their greatest enemy, that is the thick white blanket that blanks out everything.